Is Bagged Salad Safe to Eat?
Bagged salad: the best thing since sliced bread... Convenient, nutritious, flavorful - and scary?
Consumer Reports magazine published the details of their recent tests on packaged salad in their March 2010 issue. Overall, Consumer Reports is concerned that pre-washed bagged salad is less than perfectly clean.
Consumer Reports tested a sample of 208 packaged salads from supermarkets in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. The salads represented 16 national and local producers.
The Good News: NO deadly bacteria was found. (Remember E. coli O157:H7 in bagged spinach and lettuce that sickened Americans back in 2006?)
The Bad News: Consumer Reports did find unacceptable levels of coliforms and enterococcus bacteria across all brands. Those bacteria are common indicators of poor sanitation.
Greens may become contaminated growing in the fields by irrigation water and runoff from grazing livestock. Equipment and handlers in the production plant are another possible source of contamination. Cooking usually destroys bacteria in food, but salads skip that step.
Eric Schwartz, president of Dole Fresh Vegetables, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that salads are "triple washed", once with fresh water and twice in chlorinated baths. However, it is difficult to wash contaminants from leaves. Prevention efforts must focus on the fields and production plants.
The question is whether sanitation risks outweigh the benefits of eating bagged salad. Trevor Suslow, PhD, Research Specialist in Postharvest Quality and Safety at UC Davis, thinks the benefits win. He told Samantha Cassetty of the Goodhousekeeping Research Institute, "the bacteria Consumer Reports found do not necessarily indicate fecal contamination and... the numbers found do not relate well to risk of illness... or serious pathogens being present... I feel it is grossly unfair to consumers to raise a specter of fear well beyond what is supported by available science and our everyday shared experiences... there are billions and billions of servings of these items consumed every year in the U.S. alone and the predominate experience we have is of safe consumption."
Reduce your risk
To be extra cautious when eating bagged salad at home, follow these steps:
- Do not eat salad that is near its use-by date. Bacteria increase with age.
- Keep salad refrigerated.
- Wash your hand before handling salad.
- To prevent cross contamination, keep salad away from raw meat.
- Instead of buying bagged salad, consider using fresh, unpackaged lettuce; remove the outer leaves and wash it thoroughly.
- Wash salad greens with a veggie wash surfactant to thoroughly remove remaining dirt, oils and pesticide residues (although it does not kill bacteria).
If passed, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a bipartisan bill, will provide the FDA with resources needed to make prevention the focus of food safety.
Should bagged salad be bagged?